As a long-time fan of Sonos products such as the Sonos One and Play:5 speakers I’ve been watching Amazon Echo products with interest. I wonder, could they replace a Sonos setup for whole home audio?
The advantage of going with Echo, of course, is that you get all the additional capabilities of the Alexa voice assistant. Plus, there’s an abundance of streaming music services available, not to mention the ability to use Alexa to automate the home using routines.
For its part, Sonos did finally include Alexa in the Sonos One speaker. Though the sound is superb — as is the rest of their product range — I do find the voice recognition on the One not to be the best. Use any Echo speaker and you definitely get spoiled. They just work, almost always picking up your commands with little to no error.
So I spent the last few weeks seeing what it was like running a whole home audio system using Alexa and Echo speakers and ignored poor Sonos for a bit.
I should note one of the first things I needed to do was buy the new Echo Link. It’s a small box that delivers audio to a home receiver (or any other amp with inputs). Like the Sonos Connect, I can then send Alexa through our old school ceiling speakers located in a few rooms across the home (replete with old school volume knobs on the walls).
With the ability to send music through ceiling speakers in sync with a couple of Echos and Echo Dots, we were able to see what life was like with Alexa for whole home audio streaming.
Overall, it’s been pretty good.
The magic of voice control is, no question, very convenient. And, as I discovered, my wife would never have used the Sonos app to play Taylor Swift, but she has no hesitation asking Alexa to do so. 1989, again.
However, there are some gotchas.
Sonos has been at this whole home audio and streaming music thing for a long time. The Sonos app, by comparison to the do-all Alexa app, is refined and easily demonstrates years of experience in the business. Meanwhile, if you prefer not to use voice, Amazon has opted to build its Alexa “app” via a web interface. So, there’s nothing to install (and update) which is nice, but the overall experience can be wanting.
In particular here’s some issues I’ve discovered using the Alexa app to control music across the Echo Link, Echo, and Echo Dot:
- The volume sliders are ridiculously finicky. They slip and slide as you move them. Very janky. Other slides in the Alexa app behave in the same slightly crazy drunk fashion. Quite odd that a company like Amazon can’t make a fluid slider control…?
- Speaking of volume, if you want to adjust a room’s volume level on the Alexa Web app you need to specifically choose it from a pull down menu. On the other hand, the Alexa app (iOS or Android) behaves like Sonos. That is, you tap the volume icon and you get a quick list of all rooms with relevant volume sliders. But, for some reason, the web app (I use a lot when working on a laptop) to skip tracks and adjust volume is flat out clumsy in this respect.
- No search! Quite bizarre to not have a search function for music streaming. Amazon is no Google apparently. Or Sonos. Everyone has search so you can look up a track or artist or playlist easily. Instead, at least from what I can tell, the Alexa app necessitates you browse and scroll through lists of music choices.
- Volume jumps randomly. At times I’ve noticed an Echo speaker that had been previously set to “0” (zero) volume, muted, would suddenly jump back up in level when a track is skipped or a new station started. It can cause a minor scare especially late at night when you’re just trying to play some ambient tracks.
- No sleep timer. Yes, you can say “Alexa, sleep in 20 minutes.” but there really ought to be a sleep timer in the Alexa app as well, one that can be triggered without a voice command. Yes, Sonos has that…
There’s other little things that can cause you to miss the polished Sonos app.
For instance, with Sonos you can dynamically add tracks to a playlist so you can sort of DJ some tunes as you like. And there’s no denying the overall Sonos experience is purpose built. It’s for music. Whereas, the Alexa App is a catch all, and wants to do a bit of everything, including music, but also home automation, reminders, lists, etc.
Would I recommend a hardened Sonos user make the jump to Alexa?
If you’re okay with the above issues, and are happy enough with the sound quality from Echo (it’s pretty good, but not as good as Sonos) then it might be a consideration given that Amazon is pouring so much money into R&D on these things. And, given the software iterations, it hopefully may not be long before several of the problems are rectified — though some quick Googling reveals others have been harping about these music control issues for a while.
Then there’s price.
Echo speakers are very cheap in comparison to Sonos. Dots go on sale all the time and are pretty good devices for background music, on the desk, or a bookshelf, or anywhere you don’t need audiophile quality sound. I’ve found the 2nd gen Echo speaker to have dramatically improved sound quality. So you can pay a lot less to outfit a home or apartment with Echo, no question. Sonos starts at $199 for the One, but goes up from there for the beefier Play:5 and Connect products.
I really think Amazon needs to detach music from the Alexa App, or at least make a music specific Alexa app for those serious about whole home audio control. They could still offer baseline music control in the basic Alexa app. But how about an Alexa Music app? With search, proper volume sliders, sleep timers, etc.? It would be a strong blow to Sonos, as I believe their app is a key differentiator — along with sound quality — at this point. Given the rate that Amazon is iterating and advancing its Echo/Alexa products, this lead could be short lived. But not if Amazon doesn’t listen to customers and address short-comings in its current Alexa ap.